You are here:

Right to Use Service Dogs Often Violated

Who kept the dogs out? Taxis. Government offices. Restaurants. A lot of people who should know better.

By law, service dogs trained to help people with disabilities are allowed into public places from which pets are banned. Too often, however, people who use these four-legged helpers find themselves at risk because their dogs are shut out. If Toronto really wants to call itself a world-class city, that has to change.

Kaye Leslie, Scotiabank's manager of workplace diversity, says she and her dog Kirk, a graduate of the Seeing Eye organization, have been left in cold, dark locations by cab drivers who drove away or refused to stop when they saw Kirk. One time, Leslie says, she was actually getting into a cab when it took off, leaving "the door swinging against us."

Leslie is among many who have long complained to cab companies and other businesses that deny working dogs entrance. They've done their best to raise awareness and increase understanding. But despite disability rights being part of standard training for a cab licence, she says the problem not only persists, it seems to be getting worse.

When high school student Caroline Cook went to renew her passport so she could train with Ontario's kayak racing team in Florida, she was stopped short.

At 16, Cook is already a world contender in kayak sprints and dragon boat races. The fact that she is hard of hearing and uses a service dog to alert her to sounds never put a dint in her stroke--until she approached Toronto's Victoria St. passport office last month with her dog, Swiss, and her mother, Kathy.

The security guard told them only those who are blind are entitled to bring in service dogs. Didn't matter that Swiss was wearing the Dog Guides of Canada jacket or that Caroline offered official ID. The two of them were forced to wait outside while Kathy stood in line.

That afternoon, Ontario Human Rights Code in hand, Caroline's father Rob complained to the office manager. The Cooks got a formal letter of apology. But "that doesn't change what happened," says Caroline, who has also been turned away from restaurants that "seemed to be just totally ignorant."

She encourages others who use service dogs to fight for their rights.

"Swiss has made a huge difference in my life," she says. "Most of all, she makes me feel safer at night...because I can't hear the smoke alarm with my hearing aids out."

It's time to get tough with those who refuse to acknowledge the crucial role service dogs play.

What can be done?

When it comes to cabs, many companies point out that drivers who are Muslim do not want contact with dogs because Islamic tradition sees them as unclean. But critics argue that carrying dogs comes with the job description for taxi drivers.

Jim Kutsch, president of the Seeing Eye organization, advises everyone who phones for a cab to ask the dispatcher for the driver's number so it can be reported with any complaint.

He also urges the public to help identify cabs that refuse to carry service dogs.

"Many cases never get anywhere because, of course, someone who is blind cannot see a licence plate," he says.

Those who think this issue is going nowhere would do well to heed how the Metropolitan Airport Commission of Minneapolis deals with drivers who refuse dogs.

"The first time it happens, their licence is suspended for three months," says a spokesperson. "The second time, they lose their licence altogether.

"This has always been the case for service dogs; last year, we extended it to all dogs."

Reprinted from the Toronto Star, February 9, 2008, courtesy of Torstar Syndication Services.